Saying Goodbye to Ibu
Updated: Jun 28
On Friday, Jun 3, 2022 my wife received news that her mother had gone into the hospital. She had been given the same room in which my wife’s father had died just two and a half years earlier. The text from my sister in law came with a photo. My mother in law was covered with tubes and an oxygen mask; her eyes were shut. She lay stiffly across the thin, metal framed bed. She died just a few hours later.
My wife was numb, obviously in shock. Phone calls came, and I could hear the outpour of emotion on the other end of the line, but my wife remained silent… stoic. We had just attended Sonoma Academy’s 2022 graduation, and we were preparing to head out to chaperone Grad Night. We didn’t tell anyone of her mother’s passing.
She had begun scanning the internet for plane tickets, but we couldn’t arrive until late Monday, which would have been after the time her brother had scheduled for the cremation. This brought back memories of her father’s cremation when we had jumped on a plane only to get a text with a picture of his blazing body while we were still in the luggage claim. My wife had fallen to the floor in the arrival terminal and had begun to sob uncontrollably.
She didn’t buy a ticket.
The grief was slow to come, but steady. By the next day, my wife retired to her bed. By Sunday, she was leaking tears, unable to do anything but stare at pictures of her mother. By Sunday, the grief was strong and inescapable. It dug in deep like a stubborn illness that wouldn’t let her sleep or eat. It has lingered, and it has weakened her.
My mother in law is in many of the stories that I tell about Bali. She is constantly featured stepping out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on a dishtowel as she surveys the arrival of guests only to step back into the kitchen to light her stove with a vigorous click. Over and over again, in my stories, she serves tea and coffee and fried snacks, still holding her kitchen tongs, with which she snatches the half-starved, half-wild cat that resides on their property by the neck and drags off with her back to the kitchen so as not to be a nuisance. But she was also more than this. She was my mother in law, and I loved her dearly.
“Bu!” I would shout, like I was startling someone from behind a corner. However, “Bu” is short for “Ibu” in Indonesian, which means “mother.” I addressed my mother in law as “Bu.”
“Apa?” she would answer playfully, knowing my added emphasis to her name of address could only result in something ridiculous I was about to say. “Please prepare me an ice bath. I am very sweaty.” There was no bathtub. There was no ice. But she would continue the game, “Maybe you should go stay in a hotel.”
I grew the closest to my mother in law during the year that I received a grant to study the Balinese language. In 1997, there weren’t any courses for beginners, and I had enrolled in classes at Udayana University, where the students were already fluent in Balinese. The professors seldom showed up to class, and when they did, the classes were about literature, and I was hopelessly lost. But after a year, I had learned quite a bit of Balinese. That was because of my mother in law.
Vincentia Ismiati came from Madiun in East Java. She came from a Muslim family, but she had married my father in law, who was Catholic. I was fascinated by the story of how my mother in law, when she was a little girl, had been drawn to a seminary where nuns taught sewing and other skills. Her family, rather than forbidding her from continuing to go, had recognized something natural and unstoppable in her attraction to the nuns and to Catholicism, and so they had permitted her to go to seminary school and even convert to Catholicism.
At the age of twenty she married my father in law and came to live in Bali, where she had to learn to speak Balinese in order to understand the stream of instructions she received from a very demanding mother in law, my wife’s grandmother. It was because she had learned Balinese that made her such a patient and insightful teacher for me to practice with, and, of course, we had a new game to play.
“Bu!” I would suddenly shout.
“Apa!?!” She would snarl dramatically.
Because Balinese is rooted in a caste system, the normal strategy is to lower oneself, and honor the person with whom you are speaking. To do this you might use neutral words about yourself and respectful words about the one to whom you are addressing, which is very critical when you are speaking to individuals from the upper two castes, Ksatria and Brahmana. In jest, I would use the high caste words about myself, telling her that I, the king, had just eaten. Or, that I, the high priest, was about to bask in the bedroom. She never let me have the last word. “Yes, it is fitting that the king should eat because his legs are too skinny for his big head.” Or, “Perhaps the high priest should just stay in his bedroom and bask all week in there because he seems to be somewhat drunk and delirious at the moment.”
I think my stories featured her in the kitchen mainly because she was such a good cook. She awakened at three in the morning to speed off to the market to buy materials for every day’s meal. It was impossible to sleep through her cooking because she would fiercely beat the frying pans with her metal tools so vigorously it made the kitchen seem more like a construction site. And the louder the production, the tastier the food seemed to be. Pressure cookers hissed and hot oil roared ferociously but Ibu kept them beaten in submission with the clangs and scrapes of her metal spoons and spatulas. Then there would be silence. She would stand next to her husband as he ate, adding salt and chili to the rice and side dishes because she knew his own taste better than he did.
Once Bapak had headed off to the office, she would dress and get ready for a full day of work herself. She would often return home with fresh ingredients and make something to add to the dishes she had prepared in the morning so that there was something fresh and new for Bapak when he arrived home. Late afternoon the kitchen would once again clang and clatter with life. Then she did the dishes, the laundry, and swept the yard. I seldom saw her idle.
When my wife gave birth to our daughter, Ibu came to stay with us for six months. She replicated her recipes with ingredients she found at the Asian grocery stores in Berkeley. When my college friends heard about her passing, her cooking was one of the first things they mentioned. Ibu had cooked a dish for nearly everyone we knew at the time, and they had not forgotten.
The comfort her presence brought to my wife and I when we had our first child was as warm and familiar as the food my wife would suddenly crave. Rujak was eaten while Ibu rubbed my swollen wife with minyak telon or minyak kayu putih (oils used to soothe and heal sore or fevered bodies in Indonesia). Of course after Clara Sasmita Spars was born, Ibu could dispel our panic over her incessant crying by simply picking her up and patting her. She had a gentle, confident strength.
“Bu!” I continued our dynamic even during her time in the States.
“Apa!?!” she would growl comically.
“The Minister is rather parched, and could use a little something to wet his whistle.”
“Maybe the Minister should go outside and jump in the lake. That way his whistle and everything else will get a good soaking.”
Our children might have been somewhat nervous around their relatives in Bali, mainly because of the language barrier. We didn’t raise them to speak Indonesian so our visits were probably difficult for them when they were in elementary school. Their great grandmother was terrifying. Byron never met her, but Clara did. This ninety-year-old woman drifted about the house like women did fifty years ago, topless, her breasts like two empty, leather bags that hung below her waist. She chewed betel nut, which produced a bright red liquid that ran down her chin. She had the ability to suddenly appear in a room, looking like she had just eaten a small child, holding her hands out while making incomprehensible squawking sounds. Clara wanted nothing to do with her.
Both of our children treated Irma’s dad with suspicion as well. He would sit silently on the ground reading his paper. He was so still that he would become unnoticeable as our kids chased ubiquitous puppies and kittens around the yard. When Clara or Byron got unintentionally close, their grandfather was likely to suddenly reach out and grab them like a terrifying ogre. They would scream in real panic until he would finally release them. He was playing, of course, but neither Clara nor Byron wanted anything to do with this game.
But the kids loved their grandmother. Language didn’t matter. They would tumble into her arms and laugh right through the language barrier.
Once Ibu brought home live freshwater eels, which she would grab with her hand out of a bucket and throw directly into the hot oil. The eels were trapped in the bucket with a pan on top, but some of them were as strong as snakes, and once they pushed the pan off and escaped. That meant that ten black things, about half a meter in length, went wriggling down the hallway straight at Clara, who sat playing with a puppy. Upon seeing them, Clara bolted upright and ran straight out of the house, past her grandfather in the garden, and right into her grandmother’s arms. Ibu held Clara in one hand and picked up ten eels in the other, which she dumped unceremoniously back in the bucket. Ibu could also kill scorpions with her bare hands. I saw her once pinch one with her powerful fingers before it could sting her.
When we stayed with Ibu, whether we were young newlyweds or the parents of two children, life would fall into a comforting rhythm. The industriousness that began at 4 am would rival a construction zone where a sewer line was being put in, but, while it did wake us up, it also allowed us to drift into an even more comfortable sleep for another two or three hours. Ibu was already meeting the challenges of the day for us all. She had already braved the roads and the market. There was fresh food for everyone. Her absence while she was at work meant the whole house was quiet, which could be enjoyed for an hour or so, but then the expectation of her arrival would begin in the early afternoon. Her motorcycle would buzz in the driveway, and the gate would scrape open, and then there were plastic bags of pink, rose-flavored ice for everyone, or mangoes fresh from someone’s tree. The hand done laundry would slurp from the back of the house, and then the kitchen would come to life once again and the house would hum and vibrate as if the entire thing were being retrofitted. Bapak would arrive and she would always materialize to take his helmet and his glasses, which he swung so absently from his head that I wondered if she were ever not there to take them if they would simply be tossed amongst the rusty paint cans in which Ibu had planted small green plants. A gentle calm would arrive with dusk, and Ibu would bring out glasses of hot, sweet coffee on a tray, which she stirred with tiny spoons so that all would still be swirling when you reached for one. Then, soft conversation and laughter would take us into nighttime when we would all sit together in front of the small television.
The rhythm broke down somewhat when Bapak passed away two years ago. I watched over and over again the video of Ibu sitting with Bapak’s corpse when it was laid in state in their home. In the morning she brought two glasses of coffee, one of which she set on the edge of his coffin. She spoke to him as she sipped her coffee. Softly she said the things that only they could understand after decades of spending most of their moments together. She moved in with my wife’s sister, to the delight of our nieces and nephew. I imagine she took the rhythm there with her, but the devotion to Bapak was gone… and, in the brief time I was able to spend with Ibu before Covid hit, I could sense an untethering already beginning. Her rhythm had been a tight orbit around him, and without him, the early morning trip to the market, the prelude to her daily song. The routine became fragmented, and while moments of joy were spent with her grandchildren, the song that filled her days stopped playing.
I have heard that many couples die within two or three years of each other. In fact, several people have mentioned this to us when they learn that Irma’s mother died unexpectedly… so soon after her father’s passing. Someone even said that a couple’s nervous system can become entwined to the point that when one departs, the other can’t but follow. In this way, many have pointed out that her passing is very beautiful… her final act of dedication to her beloved husband.
We had seen glimmers of a new person stepping out. She had begun to meet a group of women every morning with whom she would walk and then get coffee. She had seemed to enjoy watching Irma’s sister cook, and, for once, be served. She enjoyed going out on the motorcycle to pick up her grandchildren at various hours at their various schools. Thus, nobody expected her death to happen, and there was surprise and shock. One of her nieces, the twin who was particularly close to her, stood by her casket and refused to leave. Stoically, the young girl of thirteen kept watch over her beloved grandmother who had undoubtedly smothered her with the same warm embrace that my children loved. She wasn’t ready to let go of her. I don’t think any of us were.
Two years ago, Bapak’s body burned quickly, so quickly that all of his remains had turned to ash by the time my wife and I got to the village from the airport. This had been surprising to everyone. Everyone seemed to think his body would take hours to burn. Perhaps this was because he was so stubborn, the idiom “hard-headed” translating perfectly from Indonesian to English. But his skull and the rest of his bones crumbled easily in the flames, which died quickly, and all became cold ash. Not so with Ibu. Her body took hours to burn.
The cremations are performed in the cemetery with an iron, gas stove. The family members toss flowers over the body before the gas is turned on, and then the fire begins to consume the flesh. Neither my wife nor I was there to see the fire char the body, taking the hair and clothing while those attending stood away from the furnace as it did its grisly work. Ibu’s two younger brothers had come from Java, and stood at the gate, not wishing to enter. Their tears and cries could be heard even from a distance. And Irma’s sister was suddenly racked with grief all over again, falling to her knees and sobbing uncontrollably. The twin who was particularly attached to her grandmother, likewise, joined in an extraordinary display of sadness and sorrow. Ibu may have let go of this world to be with Bapak, but this world was not ready or willing to let go of her.
And so her body smoldered like a wet log emitting greasy, acrid smoke in difficult gasps, and the cries of despair grew louder. The brothers were only getting more hysterical at the gate, and those nearer the infernal oven had become a chorus of hopeless despair. After two hours, the body still remained a mottled figure, the oven having fired it into an indestructible ceramic like a dark statue just exhumed from some forgotten time. The priest dispersed the wailing funeral party. Men assisting the priest donned heavy gloves and face shields so they could descend on her body to break it apart with iron bars so that it would finally burn.
The whole thing was unsettling, and it remains so. The reluctance of the body to yield coupled with the wails of despair from those who refused to let go of her has remained foremost in the minds of many, momentarily eclipsing the ease with which she would laugh as she sliced small, red onions or packed a suitcase for her daughter to head back to the States. Nothing was wasted, and space was maximized. When she cut a pineapple, only small tan shavings were taken, the knots carefully excavated with a tight, spiral trench through the yellow flesh. Books were wrapped with care in plastic and kept under lock and key in a glass bookcase, and even plastic toys, disposable razors, and paper cups were used long past their typical lifespans folded, glued, or pressed back into their original shape over and over again. And lest one think she was simply being frugal or stingy, one only has to remember some extravagant gift they had received from her out of the blue… a heavy chain of soft, pure gold she pulled from a bottom drawer, a stack of 10,000 rupiah notes held together with a carpenter’s staple, a wooden statue that had long been in the front room of the house.
After Bapak was gone, she had continued to mend, to straighten, and trim – gentle, quiet work – in the home of Irma’s sister. Her work never had the center-stage quality it once held for her husband, whom she waited on tirelessly. Rather than regularly breaking the silence of the home with blasts of furious, industrial construction from the kitchen, for two and a half years she became part of the quiet hum of her Irma’s sister’s home, with a soccer game on the television, digital music from a video game, stifled laughter from the twins. A mere sixty-eight years old, she could still thread her own needles, drive herself on a motorcycle, and float about the village effortlessly on her own two feet. She was someone everyone saw every day and expected to see again tomorrow.
“Bu!” The silence that will now inevitably follow is a sad one.
I imagine the television still plays the soccer games, my nephew still has his electronic toys, my nieces still smile shyly into their palms, and my sister-in-law calls to her husband to announce dinner. My wife and her sister speak on the phone, if anything, more than they used to. For now at least, because a broken toy remains unmended and discarded, a heap of kangkung untrimmed on the metal sink, and the phone call ended without it first being passed to Ibu before hanging up, the hum of the house might feel more mundane, more monotonous, possible more humdrum without the caring observation of everything coupled to subtle contributions that a grandparent makes. It may take months for this noticeable absence to become part of the new rhythm of a day whether in Canggu, Bali or in Sonoma County, California.
“Bu!” I never thanked you for being so welcoming of me into your family. Your warm acceptance of me helped everyone else to receive me, and me find my place in your home and in the village.
“Bu!” I suppose what I wish I could have said to you before you died is that I will miss you.